OUR LADY OF BOOKS; after Setting Up Her Own Indie Imprint in a Back Room in Notting Hill, Victoria Barnsley Landed the Top Job in British Publishing as Head of HarperCollins. She Hired a Crack Team of Women - and Then the Rumours Started. Melanie McDonagh Gets Chapter and Verse in a Rare Interview

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Victoria Barnsley is a phenomenon among publishers. It would have been enough for most in the trade to have set up Fourth Estate, a cutting-edge publishers, from a back room in Notting Hill, with a loan of [pounds sterling]80,000 from family and friends. But nearly five years ago, she went on to take charge of HarperCollins, one of the biggest publishers in the country, part of Rupert Murdoch's empire. HarperCollins took over Fourth Estate, and Victoria Barnsley took over HarperCollins.

Mind you, at the time I saw her, HarperCollins wasn't quite the City's pet, having had a profit fall from over [pounds sterling]15 million to over [pounds sterling]10 million, which some blamed in part on fallings out among the company's executives.

Miss Barnsley was having none of it. She put the iffy results down to the Hobbit effect - the previous year's profits had been inflated by the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings films, which had a knock-on effect on sales of the books, which HarperCollins publishes. 'But if you took Tolkien out of the equation,' she says cheerfully, 'underlying profits were up 20 per cent. So the business performed extremely well.' Then again, it's hard to think of any circumstances in which Victoria Barnsley, 50, wouldn't be cheerfully upbeat. She's that sort of woman - with languid, confident diction and an extraordinarily infectious laugh.

I was told by a friend that on one holiday they shared, they had to be escorted off the premises of a restaurant in Majorca, because they were creating such a row by laughing so much. I remind her of the episode, and she looks a little guarded. 'I do remember that, actually,' she says. 'It was a karaoke machine, I seem to recall.' She's dark-haired and buxom, dressed in elegant, corporate black. And although she's outgoing and at ease with herself, when the photographer comes to take her picture, she pulls a face.

'This is the bit I hate,' she says.

It was her self-confidence and intuition that made Fourth Estate sing. She set it up in 1984 by buying the backlist from a small publishers that went bust for [pounds sterling]80,000. Success followed success - among the quirkier books she published were The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - written literally in the blinking of an eye by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the male editor of French Elle, who was almost totally paralysed as the result of a stroke so could only communicate with his eyes - and famously, Longitude, by Dava Sobel, about the discovery of longitudinal measurement. Victoria Barnsley takes due credit.

'People talk about it as though it was one of those little books that came out of nowhere and actually we put a huge marketing campaign behind it, at least in our terms.' Her prescription for a publishing success is simple: 'What you want is the unusual.' Now her career is coming full circle. Dava Sobel has written another book, The Planets - a neat, 50,000-word account of, yes, the planets - the launch of which will coincide with the tenth anniversary of Longitude and the 21st anniversary of the foundation of Fourth Estate. 'We're having a huge party,' she says.

But she must miss Fourth Estate? She nods. 'I enjoy what I'm doing now, but I do miss the hands-on element. It was a fantastically fun time - there was a small team of people in a couple of rooms in Notting Hill. You could be irreverent and you could take risks.

It was a great, great time. I was much more intimately involved then with the publishing. But I never dreamed in a million years that I'd be doing what I'm doing now. It's totally accidental.' A significant element of her success, as with lots of high-achieving women, was a close relationship with her father. He ran one of the biggest engineering firms in the country. 'He was a captain of industry, really,' she says, 'but very, very unlike a captain of industry. He was a very important person in my life. …


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